IAB’s Rothenberg: 'Microsoft’s DNT Reversal Makes No Sense'

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Microsoft's apparent abandonment the Digital Advertising Alliance’s industrywide agreement that “Do Not Track” should be a strictly opt-in has surprised and concerned Interactive Advertising Bureau President and CEO Randall Rothenberg. Still, the IAB head, in a conversation with AdExchanger, was clear that although Microsoft’s forthcoming Internet Explorer 10 browser come with an active “Do Not Track” function that users will have to “turn-off” by choice is could spark additional chaos and confusion among publishers, advertisers, regulators and consumers.

An edited version of the interview with Rothenberg follows. (Separately, see our Q&A with Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers by Zach Rodgers here.)

AdExchanger: Microsoft’s rejection of the “Do Not Track” regime makes this a good time for the IAB to be holding an event in Washington DC this week. Is there a message for regulators with regard to how the FTC and others should view Microsoft’s announcement last week?

RR: Yes, the IAB Long Tail Alliance is meeting in DC this week for its fourth annual get together, so this is a perfect time and place in light of Microsoft’s news about its browser. The alliance consists of hundreds of small publishers, specifically companies with fewer than 10 employees and less than a million dollars in annual revenue. One of the things that characterizes the members of the alliance is that most of their advertising dollars come from ad networks and other third parties. So it’s interesting that we’re here talking a few days after Microsoft makes a move that could severely damage these kinds of small publishers.

What does Microsoft’s action mean to the wider effort for self-policing of online users’ privacy after so many years of cultivating businesses and regulators?

The larger thing is that we have been battling for five years – and it’s exactly five years ago this week that we began our push for self-regulation and privacy controls. The impetus for this project, that brought together all the major trade associations, is that the word “privacy” had been hijacked by different interests. And I say “hijacked,” because this activity around privacy was not done to promote awareness and better practices designed to safeguard legitimate consumer protection. It was done to promote certain kinds of business and political interests.

Can you outline those various interests?

There are some people who simply think that the world would be better without advertising and they consider the use of it online as a blight on society. They feel that advertising limits users’ choices of certain kinds of information and is therefore a threat to democratic free expression. Elsewhere, you have companies using arguments about privacy to fight against their competitors. A technological blockade could help some businesses and harm others.

What’s the IAB’s position in the middle of all this? Where does the trade group’s interests reside?

We represent publishers as part of a full and varied marketing and media ecosystem. The IAB fundamentally believes that advertising is essential to the operations of a democratic, capitalist society. So we object to the use of “privacy” for anything other than the protection of consumers. With that in mind, we undertook an arduous, expensive and ultimately very successful effort to create industrywide self-regulation to show that yes, in fact, we do care about privacy as well as the ability of ad-supported businesses to grow.

We’re going to continue to manage both those points and we’re going to continue to grow the DAA program. But this action by Microsoft is absolutely not helpful and actually represents a setback for consumer protection.

You have four major browser operators out there: you have Microsoft IE, Google with Chrome, Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari. Each one of them is interested in creating technological blockades around the other for certain business advantages. The World Wide Web Consortium, which has historically been a neutral standards group, has also been hijacked politically by advocacy groups that seek to push through some “Do Not Track” legislation. We’ve been trying to get all these parties to put down their nuclear weapons the past five years and develop a consensus about a system that will give consumers the control we want. In February, the White House endorsed the DAA program.

Microsoft was there at the White House! Microsoft praised the legislation. So how they could turn around and unilaterally reject something that they’ve been working toward for five years is – well, fill in the blanks: it’s a mystery, it’s a disappointment, it’s a frustration.

Is this a threat to the viability of the DAA program and the industry’s self-policing practice?

No, not at all. The DAA program remains very solid. It began before anyone ever heard of “Do Not Track.” Let’s not forget, the concept of Do Not Track is itself rooted in politics. It was invented by anti-advertising groups with the direct intent to mimic the very popular ”Do Not Call” program for telemarketing. But it’s a perfect piece of Orwellian phrasing, because it intentionally confused the concept of “intrusive” privacy – such as invading someone’s home as in the case with telemarketing abuses – with “extrusive,” which is related to information emanating from me, like data.

The problem with DNT always was, and this is why the FTC has had such trouble with what to back something up with and how, is that the American system has always run on just those kind of “emanation” systems. Think of the credit card system and the kinds of data that flies out of them about consumers and how it is then used for marketing purposes – where they buy things, how they buy things and so on.

Think of barcode scanners and the amount of behavioral information that comes out of those devices. You cannot prevent these kinds of emanations without fundamentally harming the entire American commercial system.

That’s even more so now, since media is transferring into digital, data-oriented environments, you need these kinds of emanations. You can't deliver the internet without having someone’s IP address. You can’t deliver a site properly without the user-string agent. So when some entity decides to automatically implant “Do Not Track” on the internet, what exactly are you not tracking? For example – I’m going to play a trick on you – when someone asks you “Do Not Track” what should your response be?

Well, my response as a consumer would be “It depends.” But my personal response is, if you’re going to be sending me irrelevant ads, I don’t want you following me. If you have something that relates to my interests, I don’t mind.

It’s even simpler than that. Your response has to be “Do not track what?” There is absolutely no consensus about what shouldn’t be tracked. There are uses that have to be legitimate – site analytics, security, fraud prevention, customizing homepages. Then there’s thing cookies for spamming purposes. But then there’s a lot of stuff in the middle.

The bizarre part of what Microsoft did is that they’re implementing Do Not Track by default and didn’t say what information wouldn’t be tracked. Any given publisher is then supposed to honor that header, but the publisher has no idea what not to track, because it hasn’t been specified. Are they going to shut down all the data to the site?

What Microsoft did was upend this consensus process with no notice that has been taking place. And oddly, it takes away consumer control and puts it in the hands of the browser maker. And given that Microsoft has media and advertising division, this action could ultimately hurt that side of the business as well.

What about the FTC’s stance in this? Will Microsoft disrupt the endorsement that DAA won in February?

[FTC Commissioner] Jon Liebowitz praised Microsoft’s new approach on Do Not Track, which completely goes against his previous support for the DAA. We don’t understand. Our supposition is that he doesn’t fully understand what he’s done.

By David Kaplan

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